By Paula Ann Solis
WEST — Anti-poverty workers from across the nation took on new roles Sunday when they put on hard hats and work boots to help rebuild recently devastated West.
The National Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps, an AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America program, attended the Hunger Summit at Baylor Thursday and Friday with their sponsor, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.
After the conference and training, 90 volunteers from 28 states and Washington, D.C., headed to West to demolish ruined school property and clean the area around temporary schools.
“When New York was in trouble after 9/11 and after [Hurricane] Sandy, people from all across America came and helped us. And we’re one country and we stand together, so we’re honored to be here,” said Joel Berg, native New Yorker and executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Berg worked alongside the VISTA volunteers in West.
This type of manual labor is not typical for the VISTA volunteers who are more accustomed to outreach work that combats hunger across the nation. However, Berg said the group was excited to do something more direct in contrast to their long-term efforts.
Before the group went to work, West mayor Tommy Muska greeted the group outside the West High School Football field that just six months ago served as a triage for hundreds of injured residents.
“This recovery is successful in large part because it is a volunteer-driven recovery,” Muska said. “There’s no way in the world that I can express my gratefulness, my sincere gratefulness for what you’re doing here and what everybody else is doing.”
Muska worked alongside the volunteers and acted as a shuttle driver, taking volunteers from the elementary school where playground gravel was being laid, and driving other volunteers to the track field where hazardous bleachers had to be demolished. Other volunteers cleared debris near three out of four local schools in West destroyed after the explosion.
The volunteers also planned to transport all the library books from inside West High School, which is set to be demolished mid-November, to a temporary library they were going to build. However, the school was deemed too hazardous to enter, said Susan Copeland, director for the Heart of Texas RSVP volunteer organization at McLennan Community College. RSVP is a nonprofit organization that helps connect volunteers with service organizations. RSVP helped plan the day of service for the VISTA volunteers.
Copeland said despite the fact most of the heavy debris has been lifted and the community overtly seems to be coming together, West still needs volunteers for smaller but still vital jobs.
“There’s going to be work to do for years,” Copeland said. “There’s not the glamorous work left to do, there’s the necessary work left to do. A perfect example is these bleachers they’re working on today. They have to be torn down. Who pays for that? Who does that? If volunteers don’t, then it can’t happen, so it’s really critical that people continue to work in the area. We can find something for everybody.”
Hudy Berhane, a VISTA worker from Buffalo, N.Y., said he was eager to give back after having seen the generosity from around the nation following Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“The outpour of aid happened so fast,” Berhane said. “It just made me happy to be an American and if I have the opportunity to help another place that’s been hit I’m very happy to do that and that’s how we all feel. But things here in West are looking good, but I’m glad to make it look better.”
After five hours of service, Berhane and the other VISTA volunteers helped reduce the amount of work that remains for West clean-up and demolition crews by successfully removing a majority of the boards on bleachers at three fields. Leaving behind just the steel frames, all the fields were cleaner and are now closer to being ready for new, safer bleachers. The playground at West Elementary School was also cleared of debris so the children can enjoy a safer play environment.
Later in Waco, the 90 VISTA workers were treated to dinner and a show at the Waco Convention Center where a West polka dance team demonstrated their Czech roots and gratitude before the volunteers headed off to their volunteer bases around the country.